ISSN 0024-5089
Copyright © 2011 LITUANUS Foundation, Inc.

Volume 57, No.4 - Winter 2011
Editor of this issue: Patrick Chura

Introduction to Thoreau’s Walden

Rolandas Pavilionis

Five years have passed since the death of Rolandas Pavilionis, the philosopher and professor who played a major role in Lithuania’s transition from Soviet to Western influence in the decade and a half following independence. Beginning in 1990, Pavilionis shaped national educational policy as Rector of Vilnius University. He was elected to the Lithuanian Seimas in 2000 then served in the Parliament of the European Union for two years before succumbing to cancer in May 2006.

Pavilionis, who ran for president of Lithuania in 2004, is remembered as an important political figure in Eastern Europe. Less well-known is the cultural impact he made as a literary translator. A devoted admirer of American writer Henry David Thoreau, Pavilionis completed the first translation of Walden into the Lithuanian language. When it was published in 1985, the Lithuanian version of Thoreau’s masterpiece became a cult favorite, especially among university students. Its initial printing of 20,000 copies—a large number in a country of three million—sold out within a few weeks. Clearly, Pavilionis’s translation touched a nerve in Lithuania. In those days, however, print runs for literary works were controlled not by the market but by the Soviet Ministry of Culture, which responded to the demand for this American classic by not authorizing a second printing and allowing the book to become unavailable in bookstores.

Circumstances changed in March 1990, when Lithuania achieved its independence from the Soviet Union. In 1997, a new political use was found for Thoreau when Pavilionis received joint funding from the American Embassy and Vilnius University for a reprinting of his Lithuanian Walden—this time along with Thoreau’s essay, On the Duty of Civil Disobedience.

For the new edition, which also sold out quickly, Pavilionis wrote a bold introduction that told the fascinating story of Thoreau’s influence in pre-glasnost Lithuania. Pavilionis noted that Walden provoked a powerful reaction under Soviet rule, that the book “ignited the consciousness” of the Lithuanian nation, where Thoreau’s ideas “quite painfully pierced the collective intellect of all of us who thirsted for the recovery of freedom.” Pavilionis not only explained the meaning of Walden in Soviet Lithuania, he also underscored the urgency of Thoreau’s message for the newly independent nation. In terms that are still relevant, he described the spiritual dilemmas of Lithuania’s painful transition to democracy and to a market-based, consumer society.

Rolandas Pavilionis’s introduction to Walden’To Be’ Means to Resist the Absurd—is translated here for the first time.

The 1985 Lithuanian edition of
Walden; or,
Life in the Woods,
translated by Rolandas Pavilionis.

“To Be” Means to Resist the Absurd
(„Būti” reiškia nepaklusti absurdui)

Twelve years ago, Vaga Press published the remarkable book, Walden; or, Life in the Woods, American writer Henry David Thoreau’s confessional memoir about the meaning of his life and his special life experience. This work, the philosophical journal of a Harvard graduate who severs relations with civilized society and withdraws to the woods, provoked a powerful and interesting reaction in Lithuania.

Walden, recognized worldwide and translated into numerous languages, a simple and accessible narrative about the meaning and value of existence, strongly ignited the consciousness of especially the younger generation of the then-imprisoned Lithuanian nation. What have we become, that we live so contemptibly, so unworthy of our divine natures? This question, fundamental to Walden, quite painfully pierced the collective intellect of all of us who thirsted for the recovery of freedom.

But the preservation of human dignity and spiritual liberty is by no means a problem only of one’s political and ideological conditions. For Thoreau, it was primarily a question of the relation between mankind and the world of things created by man. Why does a man live? To surround himself with things and become their slave? To create a so-called civilized society and then become a cog in the machine? Or to comprehend the mystery of his existence in the world amid Nature and the wonders of the universe? Perhaps, man lives to understand that he has not only a physical existence but a soul—vast, boundless and indefinable, beyond space, time, the body, and every limit of the material world.

Thoreau’s realization that Western civilization, especially in its American phase, though exceptionally materially impressive, was by no means the wisest way, and perhaps even one of the most destructive forms of man’s objectification and dehumanization, seemed strangely attractive to our young people—even as they were in the process of passionately and hopefully self-actualizing according to the American model. 

The century and a half that has passed since the publication of Walden has not contradicted the feelings of danger that Thoreau sensed. It is amazing that we, who have recovered our freedom and in our own way are attempting to imitate this civilization, rarely consider a similar danger, even though the risk of losing our souls, it seems, is no less apparent.

For this reason, I did not see any need to change the introduction to Walden that I wrote twelve years ago. Everything in it applies to today as well, perhaps more so: Thoreau’s thoughts are more urgent now than then. As we in our own way repeat the American experiment one hundred and fifty years later, we walk a similar path, experience similar trials, but in more bizarre, more civilized forms in an increasingly technologically advanced world.

For us, as for the Americans of Thoreau’s time, a universal truth applies: material, technological progress alone does not necessarily entail corresponding spiritual progress. Improved possessions themselves do not inspire improved humanity. The variety of man-made objects in itself does nothing to further variety in the human character. As Thoreau knew and our own experience shows, the opposite is often the case: things advance while man regresses.

The charm of material things narcotizes the human spirit even before it has time to fully awaken. The personality disappears, and people themselves, like the possessions that surround them, become truly uniform and banal. The independent self is caught in a process of social regression and imbecility that is often called the march of civilization. He conforms to the state, the tools and institutions created by man: governments, political power in general, law-makers and law-enforcers, politicians, and the many shapers of “public opinion.”

This openly confrontational point of view, directed against the degenerate forms of civilization, against the “unquestionably sacred” norms and traditions of social life, was put forth by Thoreau in his 1849 essay, On the Duty of Civil Disobedience. Originally titled Resistance to Civil Government, the essay is now read in the United States and the world more widely than Walden, though it has often been published alongside Walden.

Twelve years ago, in Lithuania as it then existed, this essay could not have been made public. Though it is recognized as among the greatest in American literary history, it was, paradoxically, much too morally subversive for the country in that period. Another paradox is that the essay sounds even more revolutionary in the world of today.

It is, however, just this type of healthy subversion that we lack in Lithuania now that we have regained our freedom, but are still searching for ourselves and establishing a civil society. The fact that a civil society does not appear automatically upon the restoration of national sovereignty and that the state, like its government, is not in itself a positive good, compelled me to pursue a re-publication of Walden—this time together with the revolutionary essay, On the Duty of Civil Disobedience. This is especially appropriate because, to a degree, Thoreau directed both Walden and Civil Disobedience toward young people—students, those beginning their life experiments and critically disposed toward all authority, traditions, social norms, and especially society’s icons.

In the history of the twentieth century, Thoreau’s Civil Disobedience has been used to reinforce some of the most far-reaching and meaningful citizens’ movements and their ideologies—Mahatma Gandhi’s campaign of civil resistance in India, European resistance to Nazi occupation, opposition to the wars in Vietnam and Afghanistan, the movement led by Martin Luther King, Jr., and the Prague “Velvet Revolution” among them.

Thoreau’s Civil Disobedience, however, is not only aimed at political or ideological regimes and systems, and not only in cases when they cause violence and oppression. The notion of disobedience not only applies when a certain social group or an entire people become united in conflict against an outside historical force—an opposed army or ideology or another hostile, alien, coercive power.

No, the concept of disobedience or resistance comprises a somewhat broader meaning that is related to the status of man and his agency within his world. The notion is no less important in a democratic society based on agreement and harmony, for it is first of all a measure of the individual’s metaphysical identity within the world, society, the state. It is a measure of how far his dignity, consciousness and self-consciousness have developed, a measure of his ability “not to lose himself” in society, and a sign of his full-fledged perception of himself as “I.”

In other words, even in a society based on democratic principles and providing the means of achieving nearly seamless accord and eliminating discord, there may be just as much cause for civil disobedience as under the tyranny of a totalitarian regime.

But to oppose norms and values, to “disobey” in a civilized, democratically established, environment is in some ways more difficult. Society is extremely intolerant toward this type of disobedience. Here, disobedience is often viewed as anarchism, undermining the very foundations of the democratic order. To justify it is not only more difficult, but against it stands the full weight and force of “public opinion,” the final and most threatening arbiter of modern societies. Justifying disobedience in this context is a more complicated task because its reasons and its roots are hidden by the democratic society itself, in its ostensible progress, its seeming reduction of forces hostile to itself and to its people. Disobedience, however, is still extremely important and absolutely essential to safeguard humanity and the individual.

The practical pretext for writing On the Duty of Civil Disobedience was the imprisonment of Thoreau—a free citizen then living in the woods—for one night in the Concord jail for refusal to pay a tax to the state. This was a seemingly meaningless incident. He was, however, a free man, not interfering with society, the state, or the operation of government—and he was arrested! This latter action comprises in itself a merciless censure.

Truly, when do the means which man has created in order to organize his and his society’s affairs according to civilized democratic principles—a constitution, laws, legislatures, the state, the government, the military, the courts, the church, the press, the tax system, business and the many other inventions of civilization—help safeguard the liberty and dignity of man? And when do these inventions, to the contrary, make of man himself a slave, a victim, an object of derision?

When are these inventions, in the hands of an unquestioningly accepting majority, actually just supports to prop up civil society? When are they only something that must frequently be endured? And when are they something that must be resisted in the defense of man’s liberty and self-worth?

Were there not hidden, from the very beginning, in that model of civil society that was born in the West and which the United States so enthusiastically adopted, imperfections—peculiar original sins and evils sufficient to arouse not simply displays of individual disobedience, but a moral and civil duty to disobey?

These questions are not easily answered. They were even more difficult for the young, aspiring, America, the New World of New Hope, seeking to forget the shame of its slave past and continental conquest, believing in itself alone more than anything else, but not yet comprehending the dangers and curses of its own ways. Many mid-nineteenth century Americans did not consider or trouble themselves with these questions. But at the end of the twentieth century, wouldn’t just as many of us, not only in America but in the entire civilized world, consider them still unanswered?

In the best case, the answer to these queries would be as follows: Yes, the system is not perfect, but is a better one possible, considering we have nowhere yet managed to institute anything more reasonable. . . ?

Such a response would only confirm that Thoreau’s thinking was correct for his time and even more so now that 150 years have passed. Thoreau raised these extraordinary questions and understood them, but his responses rejected all possible justifications and self-justifications because he sought something deeper: to touch the very core of the problem, to measure the value of modern civilization not by its material, technological, commercial or, as we might say today, “informational” evolution, but first and foremost by the amount of human freedom—human self-actualization and self-worth—actually gained or lost.

Thoreau consistently contrasted the real needs of human beings with those that man voluntarily burdens himself with—among them government and the state. He viewed artificial, man-made needs themselves as an inevitable evil that the individual must be prepared to resist, or at least reduce to the lowest possible level, for purposes of self-preservation. Attempting to awaken the consciousness of his fellow man and citizens, to awaken the human in humankind, Thoreau confronted his fellow men with a paradoxical, but for us revelatory, axiomatic assertion which is the basic truth of social life: “That government is best which governs least.” And he immediately added that the people must be worthy of such a government. People must be not only bodies, machines, things that are manipulated by the government, the church, or the press. They must possess—recover, acquire, awaken—consciousness. Only then will they order their affairs deliberately, intelligently and responsibly, as a free people.

We must be men first and subjects afterward, not the other way around. The unthinking citizen, the citizen without a consciousness, the citizen as machine, the citizen as lifeless object—this is at once the most horrible attainment of civilization and its greatest failure. And the person who assumes that not he, but someone behind him, above him or without him should order his life while he simply obeys the established order or adjusts himself to it, enacting its requirements despite their absurdity and stupidity while he is propped up by institutions, traditions and the authority of written and unwritten laws—such a citizen is not a man but a puppet, unworthy of the gift of existence in this world.

Why should I, a free man, be required to deny my conscience, a vital possession conferred not by society but by nature? Why should I have to conform to the dictates of those who would use me? Why should I be required to follow the system as if it were fate’s decree, when actually it is forced upon me and I upon it, in contradiction to my intelligence, dignity, liberty and conscience? Why should I have to sacrifice any part of the brief and precious time allotted me in this world to participate in absurdity or to become involved in the performance of falsehood?

The person who comprehends his existence amid the meaning and wonder of nature in the world will, in his lifetime, inevitably come into conflict with a society whose peaceful continuation is based on prioritized regulation by the arithmetical majority—the group that is the so-called foundation of civil society. The obedient majority, comprised of those who do not even understand themselves, is the best tool in the hands of those who value above all the interests of politics and business—the origin of this world’s totally material, corporal existence.

A large number of “inhabitants,” however, is not the same thing as a large number of thinking men and women. (“How many men are there to a thousand square miles. . . ? Hardly one.”) Rather, the established order of things—forever and increasingly in the name of those who are sound asleep or put to sleep in the name of the majority and the state that uses it to prop itself up and enact its power—is immoral. Obeying it and recognizing its authority is, therefore, also immoral. Accordingly, the violation of such an order and its laws is not only moral, but necessary—it is the reasoned duty of every fully conscious individual.

This challenge to the sacred icons of society—government, the state, “public opinion,” traditions—has never been and never will be accepted by the obedient majority, comprised of some of the sacred icons themselves. A more dangerous function of the icons, however, is simply their role in legitimizing the obedient majority. Through them, the majority begins to act against itself, against its own interests. Ever more hypnotized and anaesthetized, it becomes a faceless mass—bodies, things, continually denying itself, ever more convinced that the interests pushed upon it, forced upon it are actually its own, the majority’s interests, and that the desires forced upon it are its true desires.

This is why the prison, one of the more imposing inventions of civilization, something Thoreau experienced, may at times turn out to be at once the most appropriate place for a free soul and the best proof of the state’s imbecility: it believes that in locking up or imprisoning the body, it has also imprisoned the spirit. Fortunately, that which is most dangerous to society’s icons—the disobedient soul, the disobedient intellect—is not imprisoned when the body is locked away.

Thoreau draws the inevitable conclusion: the state never consciously concerns itself with a man’s understanding—intellectual or moral—but only with his body, his physical self. It is armed not with greater wisdom or goodness, but only with greater physical strength. I was not born to be forced. I desire to breathe as I see fit. Shall we see which one of us is stronger, which has more force? They only can force me who obey a higher law than I.

But where are those legislators, the representatives of power in nineteenth-century America and end-of-twentieth century Lithuania who, according to Thoreau, are wise enough to be enlightened by the law written eighteen hundred years ago? (Today we can update Thoreau and say, two thousand years ago).

A society that serves the god of materialism, that recognizes this as its highest value, that with its laws and systems protects and worships this god more than the free human being and the unbound spirit, inevitably becomes a mockery of an open and democratic civil society.

The social order, basing its existence first of all on the creation and use of material things rather than on inner culture, on the opinion of the masses rather than the individual, is not a society of free human beings, but of slaves, however modern it may seem, no matter what attributes of civil society it adorns itself with, not matter how much it sparkles with material splendor.

A society in which the spiritual serves the material and not the reverse, was not a society in which Henry Thoreau wished to live. For a free and just people, Thoreau believed, material wealth was not an end, but only a means to express the inner self, a way to transform the negative aspects of man and society into positives. He did not squander his precious time in the accumulation of wealth; he knew of better uses for his time.

Any type of activity intended primarily for purposes of accumulation, for the cultivation of things in the broadest sense, for material consolidation in the world for its own sake, is meaningless and futile. A man’s activities in general are only meaningful to the extent that they enable the development and enrichment of the soul—and the richer his soul, the more he is able to awaken and enrich the oversoul. The more he enriches the oversoul, the more his individual soul unites and merges with the eternal origin of both. No matter what terms we use to describe the conflict or perpetual struggle to triumph over evil by turning it into good—whether we call it good versus evil, truth versus untruth, moral versus immoral—to overcome is to transcend the material and make it serve the spiritual.

Viewed this way, the acts of all men and women are meaningful to the extent that they are applied to this effort, and the material results of their acts are significant to the extent that they have climbed the ladder to heights from which new, transcendent horizons are visible—and then the ladder can be cast away.

Things and the body, though they are in some way very imposing these days, disappear in the end—they are only temporary. The soul, when connected to the greater, permanent soul, becomes indestructible and everlasting.

A person is permitted to feel the greatest intensity and wakefulness in his being when he encounters a manifestation of the eternal. Then, the many and varied quotidian worries are suddenly erased. In confrontation with that which is everlasting, the meaning of existence reveals itself. In these moments, our self-identification with the mundane existence that has trapped us and ruled us by force, which had automatically transformed our consciousness, passes away.

From this standpoint, it matters not what form of material or social progress we have in mind. The ancient world, the Middle Ages, the modern or postmodern age, America or Lithuania. Different times, different places, yet their physical manifestations are only forms, means by which the spirit is expressed. And again, from this standpoint, neither traditionally understood social advancement nor—especially—material human progress reflects a corresponding advancement of humanity. In fact, there are grounds for believing that the relation is just the opposite.

From this and from no other standpoint, Thoreau asserts that possessions, wealth and virtue rarely go together: “absolutely speaking, the more money, the less virtue.” It is therefore logical that where the true meaning of life is concerned, moral and metaphysical faculties are reduced in proportion as the material needs increase. It follows that “the best thing a man can do for his self-improvement when he is rich is to carry out the plans he made when he was poor.” And this is why, measuring the progress of civil society, it is essential to note the inevitable contradictions between riches and moral life, between individual freedom and social obligations, and between higher laws and man-made laws.

The compromise that is made in striving to resolve these contradictions is called “democracy” or “civil society”—names concealing completely synonymous realities, but reflecting the very paradox of life, the true price of existence in the world. In coming to his conclusions, Thoreau frequently asks, “Is the democracy that we know the final possible improvement in government? Is it not possible to go another step further in recognizing and protecting man’s rights?” And he himself answers, “There will never be a truly free and enlightened state until the state recognizes the individual as a higher and independent power and authority from which all of its own powers are derived, and acts accordingly.”

One hundred and fifty years later, we can affirm that Thoreau was correct, not only in fact, but in principle. Thoreau refused loyalty to any state which contradicted his enlightened conscience not in fact, but in principle. Thoreau was neither a reformer nor an anarchist, nor a guru who would recruit the masses to follow behind him. He did not have faith in the masses, the majority, whether of a small community or of all humanity, when it was made up of conformists. In every way possible this was offensive to him.

He believed in the separate and self-reliant man, the single virtuous man. For he, such a man, formed a divine majority. Thoreau dreamed of a community made up not of the anonymous masses, but of independent, cultivated thinkers. He was not necessarily against all material progress or his own country’s American form of progress. Like a true American, he loved and was proud of his country, especially its spirit of freedom, its intellect, its ingenuity and the manifestations of its energy. Like other Americans, he was fascinated by the genius of the country’s enterprise. But he also passionately refused the effects of material tyranny on the soul, the service to Mammon of man and community, the formation of society into a horde in service to things, or to a combination of the government and “public opinion”—along with any attempts to manipulate the conscience of the free individual.

When Thoreau wrote, he was certain that the masses would not follow him. He would be even more sure of this today. Not because, in leaving for the woods and refusing to pay a tax to the state, he behaved especially strangely in the understanding of those times or today, but mainly because there have always been more “inhabitants” than men in every square mile. And there can be no better state among a people that leave so much to be desired, among the obedient majority, among bodies, things and not fully conscious citizens.

To resist the absurd, stupidity and injustice, for the benefit of the sanctioned state or its obedient majority, is the right and duty of every person living—whether in America or in Lithuania. The possibility of putting into practice this right and duty is determined more than anything else by society’s freedoms and its level of civilization, by the degree of personal liberty and dignity that it tolerates. This right and duty is the most striking manifestation of the eternal, never-to-be-resolved conflict between the individual and society. This right and duty is the most basic reminder that we are a free people.

To be means to resist the absurd.

Rolandas Pavilionis
July 1997

Translated by Patrick Chura